Accepted paper:

Narrating and imagining the Ethnic Other: discursive practices of differentiation and inclusion in the museums of Kunming, China


Marzia Varutti (University of Oslo)

Paper short abstract:

In this paper, I argue that museums in China are actively participating in a process of nation-building aimed at inscribing minorities in the framework of the Chinese nation through the selection of ethnic minorities' memories and features of identity.

Paper long abstract:

Through an exploration of the museum representation of ethnic minorities in museums in Kunming, Yunnan Province of China, I hold that museums are actively participating in a process of memory and identity engineering as, through images and narratives, museums support collective imagination about ethnic minorities' identities and past. I take as a departing point of my reflection the assumption that the modalities of representation of ethnic minorities in public museums are revelatory of the agency of the Chinese government in manufacturing the image of ethnic minorities - an image that is made to resonate on collective metamemories. Drawing from the comparative analysis of displays of ethnic minorities material culture in the museums of Kunming, I will show how the identities of ethnic minorities are conveyed through a selective process of i) remembering and emphasizing specific cultural elements, ii) forgetting other elements, and lastly, iii) modifying the perception of their relation to the Han majority. I develop these three points drawing from direct observations, and theoretically building upon critical approaches to the museum representation of the cultural Other in China. I argue that museum representational practices of ethnic minorities' identities and past reveal the ambivalence of a process of nation-building that, given the ideological crisis of the Communist régime, relies on the manufacturing of collective memories and identities to fuel a sense of belonging to the Chinese nation and support a vision of its future that ultimately appears crucial to its very permanence.

panel W110
Enacting pasts and futures: memory, identity and imagination